Guest Column

Burmese Media Caught Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

By B.D. Prakash 16 October 2014

News dailies, weeklies and tabloids of all hues are a common sight in Rangoon these days. Whether they are covering politics, elections, business or fashion, there is certainly no dearth of news stories today.

Of course, that wasn’t the case during my first visit to Rangoon in 2010, just one year before President Thein Sein’s reformist administration took office. At that time, news on politics and the democracy movement was still too sensitive to sell openly. And traveling in more rural states of the country was much like roaming in the wilderness, with virtually no access to information.

But that is a story of the past, and now you can find newspaper hawkers just about everywhere in Burma’s biggest city—a reflection of the political and economic changes sweeping across this beautiful country. In that case, why are journalists still getting arrested and jailed? Since last December, as many as 12 journalists have been arrested. Even the wives of journalists have not been spared.

Did the journalists do something wrong to deserve jail sentences? The government continues to defend its actions, saying the arrests were within the bounds of law. If the government is to be believed, the journalists indulged in unethical reporting, disclosed state secrets and caused harm to the reputation of the state with their reports. However, all of these arrests have taken place under questionable circumstances and have faced strong criticism from both the media and rights groups, which allege that most of the prosecutions were politically motivated.

Questions are also being raised about the international support that Burma continues to receive, and understandably so. Can the government keep arresting journalists at the drop of a hat? The answer is anyone’s guess.

Journalists say it matters little that the government’s censorship board has been done away with and that manuscripts no longer need to be sent to a censorship committee. They say the current laws are no better than those of the past, and may in fact be even worse.

The plight of the Burmese media was summed up nicely by Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “The switch from crude censorship to fines for crossing ambiguous lines will deny Burmese the press freedom they deserve,” he said in a statement in May.

The new media laws—including the Printers and Publishers Registration Law (drafted by the Ministry of Information) and the Media Law (drafted by Burma’s Interim Press Council)—are contrary to the functioning of a free press, and it is not surprising that journalists have vehemently opposed them. With the first law, the Ministry of Information has given itself the power to revoke the registration license of any publication that it finds “has taken any of a number of broadly defined actions such as insulting religion, disturbing the rule of law, or harming ethnic unity,” according to a statement by Human Rights Watch. It is absurd, to say the least.

Meanwhile, Special Branch police officers have been summoning editors and reporters in Rangoon for questioning, while also paying unsolicited visits to newspapers’ offices.

Owners of weeklies told this writer that they fear “midnight knocks” from the Special Branch, and prefer to either lie low or close shop to avoid the risk of arrest. For example, the owner of The Right Time weekly ended his operations in July after Special Branch officers hounded him and his editorial team for publishing a Photoshopped image of President Thein Sein in a dancer’s getup, with the caption: “The president will soon become a key dancer on the political stage.”

After the photo was published, the government let loose its fury with criticisms of the weekly on social media and regular interrogations by the police. The weekly’s editor resigned, fearing for his life and that of his family. A few other journalists followed suit, leaving the owner with no choice but to close shop. Today the owner continues to report to the police twice every month. The image of the president was published on his weekly’s cover page on Feb. 12, but the nightmare of police scrutiny continues.

What questions do the police ask when they summon editors and reporters? They mostly inquire about the publication’s income, the number of staff and their background, and the volume of the publication. Interrogations can become more intense if the police have been instructed by top-brass military officials or government ministries to rattle the publication owners through relentless questioning.

Therefore, it is understandable when journalists say they are moving forward cautiously because they are worried about meeting the same fate as some of their other colleagues.

A chronology of the arrests this year tells its own story. In February, four journalists and the chief executive of Rangoon-based Unity journal were arrested for reporting on a factory that was allegedly being used to produce chemical weapons. The government has denied the allegations, and the journalists were later sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor, reduced to seven years on appeal.

In April, Zaw Pe, a reporter for the Democratic Voice of Burma, was imprisoned for trespassing and disrupting the duties of a civil servant when he tried to conduct an interview. He was released after three months. Also in April, Yae Khe, a correspondent for Mizzima in the Bago Division town of Prome was arrested under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly Law for organizing a rally to call for greater press freedom and the release of detained journalists.

In July, the publisher and five journalists of Bi Mon Te Nay weekly were arrested after reporting on a statement by an activist group that falsely claimed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic political forces had been elected to serve as the country’s temporary new leaders. One journalist from the now-defunct journal was acquitted but the rest continue to stand trial.

Surely, the arrests will not end as the government continues to hound journalists on one pretext or another. Even foreign journalists have come under the radar, facing restrictions on their visas and undue delays in receiving permission to visit different parts of the country.

Why aren’t more questions raised when Minister of Information Ye Htut boasts about the government’s commitment to a free press, as he did at a recent conference about media development that was attended by officials from Unesco and international media. If such forums do not include discussions about the arbitrary arrests of journalists, they will only legitimize the government’s actions.

B.D. Prakash is a journalist and commentator on politics, elections, and peace- and conflict-related subjects, with a focus on South and Southeast Asia. He prefers to use his pen name and is currently based in Bangkok.